Mutch’s Legacy

By Zachary Block '99 / January / February 2004
June 8th, 2007
When the first photograph beamed from Mars arrived at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at 5 a.m. on July 20, 1976, one of the first people to see it was geology professor Thomas Mutch. The image of Viking 1’s footpad and the wind-scarred rocks around it was the first ever taken from the surface of another planet. ”It took three years to get a picture,“ Mutch told the BAM in 1976, ”and the first ones were lousy. There seemed to be a crisis every week.“

Viking’s pictures, taken by cameras built by a team Mutch directed, eventually revived the world’s curiosity about Mars; they also marked the coming of age of Brown’s geological sciences department and its arrival as a national player in space exploration. Only twenty years earlier President Barnaby Keeney had described the department as ”marginal“ and challenged it either to justify its existence or face elimination. With Keeney’s support, the group responded by going on an extended hiring spree. In addition to recruiting Mutch, Brown over the course of a decade hired John Imbrie, a giant in the field of climate change and one of the first MacArthur ”genius“ grant recipients; Léo Laporte, a former Imbrie student who would in turn train James Head ’69 Ph.D.; Bruno Giletti, who secured a major grant to set up Brown’s first geochemistry lab; and a dozen others. “People were making bets on the future based on very little,” recalls F. Donald Eckelmann, the department chair from 1961 to 1968. “Other than Imbrie, when these people came to Brown they were brand new Ph.D.s.“

The most influential of the new hires turned out to be Mutch, whom Eckelmann once described as the “dark horse” of the group. Mutch set a focus and a standard for geological sciences that continues today, when the department is regularly cited as one of the top half-dozen in the country, along with Cornell, Arizona, Arizona State, Washington University, and Hawaii. “[Brown is] certainly a major player on the map,” says former Jet Propulsion Lab director Bruce Murray. “And it wouldn’t be if [Mutch] hadn’t brought that special vision and entrepreneurship to it.” (Mutch died in 1980 while climbing in the Himalayas.)

That the geoscience department’s reputation has remained so strong for so long is due to the involvement of its students in research. During Viking, for example, Mutch created an intern program that gave sixty college students from around the country a chance to work on the mission. Head, who returned to Brown in 1973 after working on the Apollo program and has had a hand in countless missions since, continues that tradition.

Over the years, as Brown geoscience faculty, including Head, Carle Pieters, Peter Schultz, and John Mustard ’90 Ph.D., have worked on space missions, they have provided a steady supply of photos and data for students to interpret. The result has been a self-sustaining cycle that feeds seasoned Brown Ph.D.s into the academic and NASA communities, while attracting the next crop of top students.

James Garvin ’78, ’84 Ph.D. recalls working on a Mars mapping experiment and two space shuttle missions during his student days. ”I think that’s the experience a lot of us had,“ says Garvin, now NASA’s head Mars scientist. ”A lot of people have gone on and are now providing those experiences [to the next generation].”


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